Tactical analysis Columbus Crew FC Cincinnati 2-2 MLS

Columbus Crew – FC Cincinnati: “Hell is Real” Derby Ends In Relative Purgatory (2-2)

In the first “Hell is Real” derby match in MLS history, both teams could not have entered the match in worse positions. Both Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati were rooted to the bottom of the table in the Eastern Conference, and looking for answers. Caleb Porter’s team could not mesh together their possession style with results. Cincinnati had just hired Dutch manager Ron Jans and questions about what his style of play would look like obviously existed. While these teams had met earlier when Cincinnati were still a USL cub, it would be unique to witness the birth of a true Ohio rivalry in the league.

Tactical analysis and match report by Carl Carpenter.

Columbus Crew manager Caleb Porter stuck with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Sitting in the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. were guaranteed starters Wil Trapp and Artur. Pedro Santos, who has played across a number of midfield positions this season, started as Porter’s number ten, and U.S National Team forward Gyasi Zardes naturally played up front. 

Ron Jan’s first team selection mirrored the manager’s profile in his previous jobs: a 4-3-3 formation – he is Dutch after-all. The highlight of the selection was the front three of Darren Mattocks, Roland Lamah and Emmanuel Ledesma who were full of energy and pressing, a fact that would present itself in the proceedings of the match. Fullbacks Mathieu Deplange and Andrew Gutman were also tasked with positioning themselves high up the pitch and contribute to this system of pressing. 

Cincinnati start hot

To start off the match, Cincinnati manager Ron Jans and his new approach clearly had an effect on the away side: they began the match by relentlessly pressing the Crew in their own half.

Regardless of how things are going for the Crew this season, Caleb Porter’s men will commit to short passing out of the back at all costs. Jans wanted to take advantage of this potential shakiness, and get the ball into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. from higher – and in turn, easier – positions to score. 

In their 4-2-3-1 shape, Cincinnati’s wide players Emmanuel Ledesma and Roland Lamah were key to this press early on. When the Crew moved the ball around the back, the wide players stayed compact on this first directional pass, forcing them to swing the ball to the other side. It was on this “second directional” that Cincinnati would jump the man in possession and try and win the ball. 

Columbus Crew’s clear 4-2-3-1 formation against FC Cincinnati’s 4-4-2 shape off the ball.

Early intensity pays off

When Cincinnati did have possession, they had a similar style of passing and offensive organization, which mimicked the style of their opponents: prodding with patience, short fluid passes, and attacking primarily from percentage areas out wide. While this blend of defensive and offensive play did not directly lead to Cincinnati taking the lead, it contributed to their brief superiority in which they earned the corner where they opened  the score through Darren Mattocks. This lead was doubled minutes later as the Crew clearly struggled to cope with the intensity of Cincinnati. 

Caleb Porter’s men deserve a ton of credit for how they stabilized as the first half went on, and looked much better before the half-time interval. Perhaps it was the necessary tailing off of intensity from the away side which contributed to this – as did their two-goal cushion – but chances started coming for the Crew. 

A common sight was the Cincinnati team within their width of the penalty area, and the fullbacks from Columbus (Harrison Afful and Connor Maloney) trying to monopolize play to force openings in behind. Columbus were finally rewarded when they got a fortunate penalty kick right before half-time that Gyasi Zardes put away. Cincinnati goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń earned himself tons of credit for the way he kept the Crew at bay as well.

Columbus fight back but miss chance for a win

The start of the second half was much more open, and fluid in comparison to the first. Neither team took true control of proceedings, and both generally failed to have any real big chances. Cincinnati pressed in a much more controlled fashion than they had previously, and picked and chose when to do so to conserve energy. For the most part though, it was Columbus who did the majority of the attacking. As such they equalized with thirty minutes left to play, and quite brilliantly so: Pedro Santos rocketing a shot into the top-left corner. 

From here on out, it was all Columbus. Cincinnati seemed shell-shocked by the comeback they had allowed, and due to their position in the league table – and the temperature of the derby match – it was clear they were happy with a point. 

Despite Caleb Porter’s persistence on short and precise passing, Columbus clearly looked most dangerous on transitional moments of play. Cincinnati were sloppy a number of times in their buildup, and Columbus attempted to capitalize with play through the heart of the opposition’s shape. With the Crew’s wide players inverting, and their fullbacks steaming forward alongside them, it overloaded When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Cincinnati in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Had the final ball been better, Columbus could have generated a number of goals from these positions.

Cincinnati were not without their moments, but compared to the general strength in width their opponents had, the final third was far too narrow and congested. Instead of stretching play when the ball was on one flank, the Cincinnati winger on the weak-side did not provide the needed balance to open up Columbus. 

Credit must go to Caleb Porter for how he stifled their opponents. Substitutions benefitted them massively. Porter brought on Youness Mokhtar, David Accam, and Romario Williams, who all had huge impacts off the bench. This was the case in particularly with Williams. Porter sacrificed Maloney for him, and this led to two forwards up front. It seemed only a matter of time before Columbus would generate one massive chance to kill off their opponents. 

That chance did come, but they would not take advantage. In the last minute of the match, from another wide cross – and transitional moment – Zardes missed an open goal from close to a yard out.  Columbus, in the end, would be gutted to have missed out on the result, while Cincinnati would be happy all things considered.


For Columbus, while things are still not going great, it was a sign of positivity for how they responded to going two goals down at home. The second half was a clear indication that they have options on the bench to change things, should they need to in future matches. The most prominent question will be whether Porter is prepared to make these changes to or not.

Things could not have gotten much worse under the old system of management at FC Cincinnati. Ron Jans’s newfound approach should help stabilize results for Cincinnati and it will be interesting to see how he implements his system on the current crop of players. His appointment though, as to be expected, should be considered more of a long-term fix. 

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